Briefly noted: “Honor Thy Father,” “After the Ivory Tower Falls,” and “2034”

* Honor Thy Father by Gay Talese: The takeaway may still be “the mafia is bad and so is crime.” Rising in the mafia is hard for many reasons, one being that a criminal needs only to screw up once to be convicted, while the police and prosecutors can screw up many times and still in some sense come out ahead. Honor Thy Father was published in 1971, and it covers an even earlier era; by 1971, a sense of elegy and things passing or being better in the old days already pervades the mafia story. The Sopranos comes out in 1999 and hits the same themes. Maybe all mafia stories have to concern a mythic past: few are set in whenever the mafia’s heyday—perhaps the 19th Century—may have been. The mafia reality is too tawdry for anything but the good days to have been in the past.

There’s much talk about inheritance—”among the inheritors [of the old-world, Italian mafia and mafia practices] were such men as Frank Labruzzo and Bill Bonanno, who now, in the mid-1960s, in an age of space and rockets, were fighting in a feudal war.” “A feudal war,” but with pistols and other firearms: the future may have been there, but it wasn’t evenly distributed. One day, will people be fighting feudal wars in space? Little about engineering or engineers appears in Honor Thy Father: the most important work of the 1930 to 1970 period was happening in California, at Intel and similar companies, though this wasn’t universally recognized at the time—which may make us: where is the most-important, least-recognized work happening today?

Other descriptions in Honor Thy Father remind us of cultural and other chanage; Bonanno “conveyed to his children his disapproval of tattletales. If they saw their brothers, sisters, or cousins doing something wrong, he had said, it was improper for them to go talebearing to adults, adding that nobody had respect for a stool pigeon, not even those who gained by such information.” Many modern institutions are obsessed with “talebearing” and encourage stool-pigeoning (if you’ll forgive the verbing of nouns). Many of the crimes aren’t crimes: the numbers racket is now the lotto (“If the lawmakers would legitimize numbers betting it would hurt business because it would deprive customers of that satisfactory sense of having beaten the system”), and loan sharking has been subsumed by the payday loan industry. Prostitution is still formally illegal but has moved online, where it’s sufficiently out of sight and to be out of mind.

Monotony, boredom, loneliness: these words recur. Whatever glamor one might infer in the mob life, it’s absent in Bonanno’s life, apart I guess from the glamor of high stakes: most of us aren’t shot if we do our jobs poorly, which is good for quality of life but bad for dramatic tension. Most of us can recover from most mistakes, and a “cutthroat industry” is a metaphor.

* After the Ivory Tower Falls: How College Broke the American Dream and Blew Up Our Politics—and How to Fix It by Will Bunch: If there’s a message to After the Ivory Tower Falls, it’s “conditions change.” What makes sense in one set of conditions, won’t in another: college made sense for most people between 1945 and the 1990s. By the 2000s, growing costs started to change the appeal to the marginal student; Bunch’s tone may also stem from him being a journalist, a field that’s shed about half of its jobs since 2000, and declining fields feel very different from growing ones. I know, because I’ve foolishly pursued work in some declining fields, while other friends work for tech companies.

Much of the “everyone must go to college” mantra comes from slight of hand: college graduates earn more than non-graduates; that means college caused the earnings jump. Stated so bluntly, anyone familiar with how correlation is not causation sees the problem: trying to get everyone to go to college winds up weakening the value of the college-degree signal, and, at the same time, most schools are strongly incentivized by the student-loan program to get as many students in their doors as possible. Prices rise, but schools that sell low-value degrees have no feedback mechanism discouraging them from that behavior—a key point in Paying for the Party (which isn’t cited).

Baumol’s Cost Disease isn’t cited by Bunch either, or Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, which identifies Baumol’s Cost Disease as a main cause of rising costs. So what do we get? A lot of mood affiliation. In Bunch’s telling, nonprofit colleges bear surprisingly little responsibility for their own predatory behavior. Consider this example: “When faith in the American way of college began to wane after years of runaway tuition, Wall Street smelled blood in the water.” Okay, we have a metaphor around “faith” in the first part of the sentence, but then we have a metaphor around a shark attack in the second? Why would waning “faith” lead to the smell of “blood in the water?” The confusing imagery is part of After the Ivory Tower Falls‘ general confusion; it tends to conflate things that should be separate and separate things that should be conflated. The book speaks to the race for entering exclusionary schools, and yet there’s almost nothing about the most expensive cost for the vast majority of households—housing itself. Without looking at the rising cost of housing over the last 50 years, the rising sense of precarity and competitiveness doesn’t make sense. The cost of living feels higher than it used to be because it is higher than it used to be; Bunch’s grandmother could move to California at a time when exclusionary zoning hadn’t made California unaffordable to most people. We used to have abundance; now we have legally-mandated scarcity, and perhaps that should change. The champions of “diversity” in highly exclusionary schools and enclaves are so unintentionally comedic because of how vigorously they speak about diversity while supporting policies that cause and ensure the exact opposite, while never noticing the contradiction. One form of comedy is saying one thing while doing another.

We see data like “Nearly 40 percent of full-time undergraduates who enrolled in the 2011-12 academic year accumulated some debt but did not have a degree after six years, said Mark Huelsman, the director of policy and advocacy at the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University.” While schools like Purdue hold down costs and increase value, many others don’t. College is a huge financial and life danger, in a way that it wasn’t in the middle of the 20th Century, but Bunch doesn’t want to foreground the way colleges have contributed.

Some students do really well: those who major in technical subjects like computer science or engineering, especially at state schools with relatively low tuition. Many others don’t; even in expensive, exclusionary schools, it’s not obvious that the payoff is worthwhile, compared to less-expensive schools, particularly for non-geniuses; if you’re doing math 55 at Harvard, great. If you’re doing sociology, is it great? Those graduates will probably be fine, albeit at high tuition costs.

More could be said, but why bother? There is a better book in After the Ivory Tower Falls, but mood affiliation and too little data stops it from appearing.

* 2034: A Novel of the Next World War: Not terribly well written; on the first page, for example, we follow captain Sarah Hunt, commodore of Destroyer Squadron 21: “On a recent sleepless night, she had studied her logbooks and totaled up all the days she had spent traversing the deep ocean, out of sight of land. It added up to nearly nine years. Her memory darted back and forth across those long years, to her watch-standing days as an ensign…” “[O]ut of sight of land” should be removed—”the deep ocean” implies it—and “those long years” should be removed too, since they’re also implied. Expect more of the same, though the plot is interesting: events in the South China Sea and Strait of Hormuz lead to war between the U.S. and China. Spoilers ahead, but the plot deals with the Chinese magically being able to blind U.S. electronic warfare systems—no plausible mechanism for this capability is proposed, unless I missed it, which is possible—and then the U.S. has to resort to older aircraft and systems that aren’t so electronic. This romantic anachronism is like dreaming of a cavalry charge succeeding in World War I. India is the eventual kingmaker; the word “victor” can’t really apply to anyone in a large war, though if there is one, it’s India. As with Tom Clancy novels, the book celebrates diversity in that anyone on the U.S. side can contribute to fighting the CCP.

2034 would make a promising movie—all those visuals of flight decks and missiles—but China now controls Hollywood, so the book will remain the book, unless Peter Thiel wants to fund it. He’s probably not a Story’s Story reader, although you never know.

Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It — M. Nolan Gray

Arbitrary Lines is a very good book, and one whose subject shouldn’t discourage you; as the author admits: “At surface level, zoning is an impossibly boring topic, even by the terms of public policy debate.” The boredom is part of the point, though: because it’s boring, most people don’t get fired up about change. The tedium is protective to the status quo, and the tedium means that “seemingly innocuous zoning rules” have come to control “virtually every facet of American life.” As a result, we’re “systematically moving from high productivity cities to low-productivity cities, in no small part because these are the only places where zoning allows housing to be built.” I’m a tiny part of this massive migration: I moved from New York City to Arizona because New York builds less new housing per capita than almost any other major city, outside of California. The per-square-foot cost of my place in Arizona, in an area that is what passes for urban, is under half that of New York. I’d have liked to stay in New York but not at the literal cost of staying there.

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Gray points to the ’70s as a turning point—something I wondered about too: “As a result of the further tightening of zoning restrictions beginning in the 1970s, median housing prices have dramatically outpaced median incomes in many parts of the country over the past half century.” Solutions like “move to the farthest exurbs” don’t work well because they increase car commuting and traffic congestion, with commuting being awful for quality-of-life. In many cities, there is effectively no more exurban fringe: New York and L.A. are out of space within practice reach of their centers. Nominal “environmentalists” who attempt to seal their neighborhoods from new housing units are particularly comedic: they say they’re worried about the environment, while supporting housing policies that are terrible for the environment and foment car commuting. All of us are hypocritical to some extent, but this is well beyond normal, everyday hypocrisy.

Gray goes through zoning’s history: starting in the 1910s and moving onwards. He notes that “Cities such as Providence, Cleveland, and Los Angles grew by a startling 50 percent or more between 1890 and 1920. This in turn triggered a boom in apartment construction, as demand for housing ballooned.” “Ballooned” is a funny word here, given that one can imagine the housing stock as cartoon balloons being inflated. But it’s also useful to conceive of what a dynamic society looks like: a dynamic allows the freedom for landowners to build new housing, without a huge number of veto players stopping them. Outside of the relatively unregulated tech industry—which is where the frontier has moved—we’re a complacent society, not a dynamic one, and housing is one of the places this is clearest (though drug development and the stranglehold imposed by the FDA is another).

In much discourse today, the “not-in-my-backyard” (NIMBY) contingent argues that things are changing “too fast,” whatever that may mean. NIMBYs who claim to be redressing historical racial grievances seem to miss that they’re willing to rapidly adopt new moral or social ideas, while being unwilling to countenance changes in the physical environment that really matter and might embody those moral or social ideas. They’re saying one thing, but not connecting those statements to each other. Much early zoning was about exclusion—Berkeley, California “introduced the first single-family zoning district in the United States,” and Gray reports that “Charles Henry Cheney, a key framer of Berkeley’s 1916 zoning ordinance” worried that “undesirable industries” would bring in “negroes and Orientals.” Today, Berkeley’s rhetoric favors racial harmony and integration, while Berkeley’s median housing price is $1.7 million. Almost no one seems to see the gap between the stated goals. The rationale for modern zoning is different from the original rationale, but the outcome is similar.

Gray worked, and maybe works, in urban planning, so he has stories about its absurdities. There’s a 30,000 foot view of how things work, and there’s an on-the-ground-view, and he’s done both. I appreciate the combination: having worked for decades in grant writing, I see things about the world of nonprofits and public agencies that most people don’t. Like zoning, few are interested in how many nonprofits and public agencies are funded and truly operate. The knowledge is out there, mostly ignored, except by the wonks who can find one another online.

The middle sections of Arbitrary Lines, about how restricting housing supply raises prices, will be familiar to regular readers, or to anyone familiar with basic economics (which excludes a large number of people who think other factors are somehow at play—though we see the supply-restriction story in the data). I’m tempted to quote extensively, but this is a solid “man does not bite dog” story: what one would expect to happen, has happened, helping to lower aggregate wealth and make life harder for millions of people. Gray also has a picture of yard signs, one saying “All are welcome” and another “opposing zoning liberalization in Austin.” There are fun study citations, like that “the typical resident of Vermont—renowned for its commitment to environmentalist causes—consumes three and a half times as much gasoline per year as the typical resident of New York City.” Most people follow their feelings, not data, and so we get the results we get. Still, the affordability crisis has gotten bad enough that we’re starting to see policy responses, and books like Arbitrary Lines should help inform the kinds of staffers who write and encourage legislation.

What can be done? I approve of efforts to enforce change at the state level and hope they succeed, though I wonder if it’s going to take technological innovation to see substantial improvements. Self-driving cars will lower the cost of current zoning, because true self-driving cars would allow us to reallocate most of the vast amount of urban, developed space reserved for parking into something else. The car allowed the exclusionary suburbs of the post-war era to bloom, and the self-driving car may remove the mania for mandating the over-provision of parking spaces. The High Cost of Free Parking is a great, surprising book about a subject that seems as boring as zoning, and yet one that also affects almost every aspect of how we live—including our health.

If this essay seems like too much a summary of the book, that’s because the book is thorough and comprehensive, and apart from some anecdotes I have too little to add. “Zoning” may be invisible, but its results are visible all around us. We pay supernormal amounts to live in areas built before zoning strangled our ability to create functional cities. Human flourishing would increase if Gray’s ideas became widely adopted. Inertia and complacency stand in the way. We can live better, if we choose to.

Freddie deBoer on writing, in “If You Absolutely Must”

Freddie deBoer has a book, or more realistically booklet (it’s free, too), called If You Absolutely Must, and, while it’s about writing, it’s also about the world; like many interesting books, the nominal topic is a jumping off point for, if not everything, then for many things, and he takes his own advice by being eccentric and obsessed. He recommends writers be serious and notes that “Immense damage has been done to the public perception of many causes beloved by the social justice set by that set’s dogged insistence on associating those causes with totally frivolous ideas. When a writer says ‘I’m going to connect the trauma of segregation to the semiotics of breakfast cereal,’ it doesn’t make people expand their thinking on the scope of racism. It makes the writer ridiculous and the issue seem trivial.” Probably you weren’t expecting probing commentary on the “social justice” set in a book about writing, or at least I wasn’t, and yet there it is—an effective, accurate critique. DeBoer says: “If you want to stand out, try being serious.” That’s a specific form of the advice, “Don’t automatically do what everyone else is doing.” If many persons writing spend “life in a self-defensive crouch,” do the opposite: doing what everyone else does is common. What’s rare and what’s common? Figure out the latter and use it to try and do the former.

DeBoer’s advice is: “you have to be difficult. You have to be weird. I think being unclassifiable and difficult and fractious are desirable qualities for a writer in and of themselves.” He’s probably right, for the kind of writing he’s doing, and the kind of writer he’s talking to. But, don’t try to be that type of writer, or, likely, any type of “writer” in the sense of someone who makes his or her primary income from writing for the general public: it’s too glamorous, and the supply and demand are way out of balance. If You Absolutely Must is an appropriate title, because you shouldn’t try to primarily be a writer, any more than today it makes sense trying to make adult amounts of money as a photographer. Both occupations coalesced in the before-times, and the border of those before-times is hard to define precisely but occurs somewhere in the 2009 – 2015 period. I’m going to call it “2014” somewhat arbitrarily, when the smartphone and social media world is not merely born but has matured into the dominant want people access, produce, and think through information. The journalism-publishing world that existed throughout the 20th Century and into the 21st was in decline throughout the ’00s but went terminal after the Great Recession, as did the literary world. Twitter and similar replaced it; that may be good, bad, neutral, or orthogonal, but it seems true, and is linked to the way “the financial picture in this world [of writing for publications] is significantly worse than it was even 10 years ago.”

The number of words available to a person, particularly on a daily basis, used to be limited, and you had to have a printing press to get words from the writer to the reader. I’ve read numerous writers describe how hard they worked, in their youth, to access books; William Gibson stands out in this respect, but there are many others. Now, the number of words, images, moving images, and combinations of those things is, from the ability of an individual to process that media, infinite. Attention, instead, is finite: that’s the bottleneck, and we’re slowly seeing adaptation to that reality. Companies and famous persons are learning that the legacy media might best be ignored, rather than engaged with; instead, “The whole concept of giving free content, quotes, interviews to legacy media corporations is obsolete,” and the job of companies and famous persons is to build their own channel. Whatever you’re talking about, that’s what you’re bringing attention to, and most of us are still poor at directing our own attention to things that matter, rather than things that don’t.

Point is, almost all writing institutions, the assumptions underlying those institutions, and so on, were set up before the smartphone-social-media era. Most of the people teaching writing were born and came up in the previous era, and even those who weren’t, still likely haven’t entirely imbibed the new world, and I include myself at least partially, and maybe entirely, in this. We went from a world of relative scarcity to a world of information abundance, and we’re still dealing with those effects. I’ve run into a couple of people paying apparently good money for masters degrees in journalism, which is a level of financial insanity and time wasting that I can just barely comprehend. Those masters degrees shouldn’t exist, and whoever’s in them hasn’t gotten the message.

If you’re trying to make adult amounts of money primarily as a writer today, you’re competing with people who have family money quietly backing them, and with people who have achieved financial independence in the tech industry. This is one of the most interesting bodies of work published in the last 20 years. You are also facing up against people like deBoer, who “write pathologically; that is, I write so much that it has become a detriment to my life, and the amount of writing I’m doing is frequently inversely correlated with my overall health. I have tracked how much I write in a given week fairly obsessively for about 9 years now. Since I lost my job last June I have been averaging a bit more than 35,000 words a week.” “Pathologically” is an apt word here: “involving, caused by, or of the nature of a physical or mental disease,” although I don’t love the word “disease” and prefer the ancient Greek notion of obsession arising almost from outside the self, or from divine inspiration: closer to Julian Jaynes, further from modern medicalization. Whatever the mental model one likes—I’ll take muses inserting metaphoric Neuralink into the brain and piping in messages—being obsessed is here, if not a virtue, then a condition of many of those who pursue this mode of writing, often at the expense of much else in their lives.

Still, DeBoer says that “If you’re a consumer of writing, you’re facing a paucity of real choice, and the choices that are before you are all likely quite unappealing. People seek out writers on the margins because they’re tired of pieces telling them that Valentine’s heart candies are rape culture.” I’m not sure all consumers of writing face a paucity of real choice: I’ve been in libraries, I’ve read books not published in the last four years; right now I’m a quarter through Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe. There are around 230 websites in my RSS feed, none of which routinely tell me that “Valentine’s heart candies are rape culture.” So, finding that kind of writing is a choice, more than it’s forced and foisted on a reader. For many years I subscribed to or read the New York Times‘s Sunday edition, in paper, but I quit a while ago, and in doing so, I exercised the “real choice” to not support the sort of thing deBoer is talking about here. That some number of readers are making that choice to read about the Valentine’s heart candies thing, even if they somehow feel they aren’t making a choice, might be another avenue of exploration. From what I understand, there are also sources out deifying a certain man who inherited his father’s fortune and who is a former reality TV show host; I don’t read those either.

Writing fiction isn’t deBoer’s main interest here, but it’s been one of my interests: writing fiction, never an easy route to paying the bills, doesn’t work any more. As a hobby, sure. I’ve been annoying friends and acquittances by asking, “How many books did you read in the last year?” Usually this is greeted with some suspicion or surprise. Why am I being ambushed? Then there are qualifications: “I’ve been really busy,” “It’s hard to find time to read,” “I used to read a lot.” I say I’m not judging them—this is true, I will emphasize—and am looking for an integer answer. Most often it’s something like one or two, followed by declamations of plans to Read More In the Future. A good and noble sentiment, like starting that diet. Then I ask, “How many of the people you know read more than a book or two a year?” Usually there’s some thinking, and rattling off of one or two names, followed by silence, as the person thinks through the people they know. “So, out of the few hundred people you might know well enough to know, Jack and Mary are the two people you know who read somewhat regularly?” They nod. “And that is why the publishing industry works poorly,” I say. In the before-times, anyone interested in a world greater than what’s available around them and on network TV had to read, most often books, which isn’t true any more and, barring some kind of catastrophe, probably won’t be true again.

This isn’t a lament or whining about the kids these days, a genre that’s been tired for centuries if not millennia: it’s an observation of how culture and behavior change. Calculus is the study of change, and most writers are on some level also describing change. The economic institutions that used to support writers aren’t there any more, or exist only in skeletal form (good luck getting that MFA teaching gig). There are new ones (Patreon, self-publishing, Substack), and deBoer is orienting readers towards new ones. If they must. Don’t must. Do something else. Learn to write, as a secondary skill.

DeBoer isn’t writing to complain: he says: “the average level of pure prose chops – the ability to express yourself with clarity, concision, and style – is very high today, and better than it ever has been in the 20 years that I’ve been reading nonfiction.” I’m not sure if he’s right. It’s possible that the average level of pure prose chops among writers is higher, while the level among the general population might be lower. I can’t tell. Among students, I don’t detect a lot of change, although I also don’t know how I’d measure that, amid so many other changes. I find my own reading habits drifting away from books and towards longer articles: a Kindle combined with Instapaper are the key technologies here (it may also be that there are diminishing marginal returns to reading more fiction, at some point). It used to be that a lot of general nonfiction books had 10,000 or 20,000 words of material expanded to 50,000, in order to fill a book-sized pagecount. Now it seems that many articles remain articles. I read deBoer’s book The Cult of Smart, about which he says:

My first book, The Cult of Smart, was published by St. Martin’s Press in 2020. It sold more than 98% of the books published that year! But [it] still has only sold about 6,000 copies to date (late January 2022). That’s both [sic] not very good from the standpoint of my trying to sell another book.

According to The New York Times, 98% of books published in 2020 sold less than 5,000 copies.

The Cult of Smart is good and interesting, and it lines up with my own teaching experiences, far better than I wish it to. You should read it. It’s a success—well above what most writers achieve—and he makes only $75,000 from it? That’s success? And DeBoer has spent a huge amount of time writing, relentlessly, on the Internet. More and more, I find myself thinking, “I’m too bourgeois for this.”

Golden Hill — Francis Spufford

Golden Hill might be the most amazing novel I’ve read since Lonesome Dove: after a string of duds I’m pleased to find a novel so cleverly written and plotted. The latter point matters: every time Golden Hill seems to be too pleased with its own reproduction of eighteenth-century language, a shocking turn reminds one of the stakes, and that the novel is not primarily an exercise in language mimicry (though it is that too, and pleasingly). Laura Miller’s review induced me to it, though the review doesn’t and maybe can’t give a good sense of just how delightful the book is. Most of us who aren’t seeking tenure won’t care how much it relates to 18th Century antecedents or 20th Century recreations of those antecedents; we care if the book is any good and gives pleasure, and it does. The machinations of money and money transfer drive the plot: has the first great novel that turns on Bitcoin or Ethereum been written, yet? Long before digital coinage, Mr. Smith shows in New York, in 1746, and says little of himself, but he presents a bill for cash. The counting-house man, Mr. Lovell, wants to know, as does the reader, “What is this thing? And who are you?” Smith says, “What it seems to be. What I seem to be. A paper worth a thousand pounds; and a traveler who owns it.” The dialogue on the pages that follow is a witty duel, and Lovell reminds Smith that “Commerce is trust, sir. Commerce is need and need together, sir.” Can Smith and Lovell trust each other? And why? The trust is not only commercial but romantic and sexual as well: Lovell has a pair of daughters, who are intrigued by this curious man, who is rich—or is he? If he is attempting to steal money, what else might he attempt to steal?

The sentences satisfy, and the style is winkingly old, with many clauses strung together: “As a mason must build a wall one brick at a time, though the finished wall be smooth and sheer, so in individual pieces did Mr. Smith’s consciousness return to him, the next day, as he lay in the truckle bed of Mrs. Lee’s gable-end bedroom, and assembled the world again.” Or: “Mr. Lovell, to whom few things retained the force of novelty, and who misliked extremely the sensation when they did, as if firm ground underfoot had been replaced on the instant by a scrabbling fall in vacuo—was, at the moment the door opened on Broad Way, hesitating in his parlour.” We learn much about Mr. Lovell, there, and why he may be unusually suspicious of Smith, whose novelty continues through the novel. He is busy watching others, but he “failed to perceive, as he reflected and considered, that others were meanwhile reflecting and considering upon him.” His perspective seems stable at first, but he is often surprised, as his own assumptions about others prove wrong. First impressions are often dashed, as are second-, third-, and fourth impressions. The best impression of the novel may be not the first time through but the second, when what seem to be minor, though depressing, details, like Smith noticing “a coffle of shuffling black men in irons underscoring the street music with a dismal clank.”

Still: antecedents. Golden Hill reminds me of John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor, though Golden Hill is blessedly shorter. The Sot-Weed Factor is amazing, but too many plot turns leaves one reeling and discombobulated, like an excess of drink; as with many things is life, some is good and too much is not better, and by the midpoint of The Sot-Weed Factor a yearning for resolution sets in, and tedium overcomes investment. Like Golden Hill, it decides to situate, as best it can, the reader in the mind of a man from centuries ago. There is much happening in Golden Hill’s many metaphors. Septimus tells Smith, “the ships come and go again, and the most part of the traffic of souls passes straight through. They walk up from the slips to the streets and are gone; the continent devours them. New-York is but a gullet. Few stay.” “A gullet:” a piece of the digestive track, and few of us wish to be subjected to digestion. The New World was brutal, then. Death everywhere, and, horribly, “we have no theatre” in New York. Naturally, a play is eventually got up, and plays into the rest of the book, which is braided tightly together, the early parts reappearing in the later.

The way Golden Hill speaks of today’s dilemmas garbed in the past is interesting, but maybe most interesting is the way that it, like The Name of the Rose, is a text composed of other texts, and made the better for it. The hook, though, remains the plot: it is in motion, with the plays within plays within plays, and political theater and theater theater are much the same—as they are today and likely will be tomorrow. Each time I felt sure-footed reading Godlen Hill, something shifted, and left me off balance, in a way that’s hard to describe easily felt as a reader. I didn’t foresee the ending, though it seems obvious in retrospect: a bit ridiculous, and with some unlikely elements, but it fits. “Where do you get your ideas?” is among the least good questions that can be asked, and yet this novel combines elements so unexpectedly that I’d like to ask its author about them.

Bringing Up Bébé – Pamela Druckerman

This is really a book about how to do things, and about how the way we do things says things about who we are. Fiction is often about culture and so is Bringing Up Bébé. Cross-cultural comparisons are (still) underrated and we should do more of them; you can think of Michel Houellebecq’s work as being about the dark side of France and Druckerman’s as being about the light side of France (noting that she’s a transplanted American). Bringing Up Bébé is a parenting book, yes, but also a living book—that is, how to live. I bought it, let it sit around for a while, and only started it when I couldn’t find anything else to read, only to be delighted, and surprised. Let me quote from a section of the book; each new paragraph is a separate section, but put them together and one can see the differences between American-style families and French-style families:

French experts and parents believe that hearing “no” rescues children from the tyranny of their own desires.

As with teaching kids to sleep, French experts view learning to cope with “no” as a crucial step in a child’s evolution. It forces them to understand that there are other people in the world, with needs as powerful as their own.

French parents don’t worry that they’re going to damage their kids by frustrating them. To the contrary, they think their kids will be damaged if they can’t cope with frustration.

Walter Mischel says that capitulating to kids starts a dangerous cycle: “If kids have the experience that when they’re told to wait, that if they scream, Mommy will come and the wait will be over, they will very quickly learn not to wait. Non-waiting and screaming and carrying on and whining are being rewarded.”

“You must teach your child frustration” is a French parenting maxim.

As with sleep, we tend to view whether kids are good at waiting as a matter of temperament. In our view, parents either luck out and get a child who waits well or they don’t.

Since the ’60s, American parents seem to have become less inclined to say no and let kids live with some frustration, and yet we need some frustration and difficulty in order to become whole people. I’m sure many teachers and professors are reading the quotes above and connecting them to their own classroom experiences. The tie into Jean Twenge’s book iGen and Jonathan Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind is almost too obvious to state; Haidt and Twenge’s books concern what smartphones are doing to the state of education, educational discourse, and educational institutions, and, while they cover smartphones and social media, those two technologies aren’t occurring in isolation. Excessive permissiveness appears to create neuroticism, unhappiness, and fragility, and excessive permissiveness seems to start for American parents somewhere between a few weeks and a few months after birth—and it never ends. But most of us don’t recognize it in the absence of an outside observer, the same way we often don’t recognize our psychological challenges in the absence of an outside observer.

In Druckerman’s rendition, French parents are good at establishing boundaries, saying “no” and, with babies, implementing “the pause”—that is, not rushing to to the baby’s aid every time the baby makes some small noise or sound. She writes about how the way many children are “stout,” to use the French euphemism for “fat,” comes from not having established mealtimes but instead of having continuous snacking, in part because parents won’t say “No, you need to wait” to their kids.

Failing to create reasonable boundaries from an early age leads to the failure to develop emotional resilience. “Reasonable” is an important word: it is possible to be strict or to let kids struggle too much, just as it’s possible to do the opposite, and the right mix will likely depend on the kid or the situations.

French parenting culture spills into schools:

When Benoît took a temporary posting at Princeton, he was surprised when students accused him of being a harsh grader. “I learned that you had to say some positive things about even the worst essays,” he recalls. In one incident, he had to justify giving a student a D. Conversely, I hear that an American who taught at a French high school got complaints from parents when she gave grades of 18:20 and 20:20. The parents assumed that the class was too easy and that the grades were “fake.”

The whines I got from students also make sense: in many U.S. schools, there’s not as strong a culture of excellent as there is a culture of “gold stars for everyone.” I understand the latter desire, having felt it myself in many circumstances, but it’s also telling how important a culture of excellence is once the school train tracks end and the less-mapped wilderness of the “real world” (a phrase that is misused at times) begins.

I routinely get feedback that class is too hard, likely because most classes and professors have no incentive to fight grade inflation, and the easiest way to get along is for them to pretend to learn and us to pretend to teach. Real life, however, is rarely an “everybody gets an A” experience, and almost no one treats it that way: most people who eat bad food at a bad restaurant complain about it; most people whose doctor misses a diagnosis complain about the miss (and want excellence, not just kindness); most people prefer the best consumer tech products, like MacBook Airs or Dell XPS laptops, not the “good try” ones. Excellence itself is a key aspect of the real world but is often underemphasized in the current American education system (again, it is possible to over-emphasize it as well).

In my own work as a grant writing consultant, “good job” never occurs if the job is not good, and “you suck” sometimes occurs even if the job is good. Clients demand superior products and most people can’t write effectively, so they can’t do what I do. I’m keen to impart non-commodity skills that will help differentiate students from the untrained and poorly educated masses, but this demands a level of effort and precision beyond what most American schools seem to expect.

Having read Bringing Up Bébé, I’m surprised it’s not become a common read among professors and high school teachers—I think because it’s pitched as more of a parenting book and a popular “two different cultures” book. But it’s much subtler and more sociological than I would have thought, so perhaps I bought into its marketing too. There is also much to be said for how to teach and think about teaching in this book. The French are arguably too strict and too mean to students. Americans are probably not strict enough, not demanding enough, and don’t set adequate standards. The optimal place is likely somewhere between the extremes.

Druckerman is also funny: “I realize how much I’ve changed when, on the metro one morning, I instinctively back away from the man sitting next to the only empty seat, because I have the impression that he’s deranged. On reflection, I realize my only evidence for this is that he’s wearing shorts.” Could shorts not be an indication of derangement? And Druckerman cops to her own neuroticisms, which a whole industry of parenting guides exists to profit from:

What makes “Is It Safe?” so compulsive is that it creates new anxieties (Is it safe to make photocopies? Is it safe to swallow semen?) but then refuses to allay them with a simple “yes” or “no.” Instead, expert respondents disagree with one another and equivocate.

Bébé is a useful contrast from the France depicted in Houellebecq novels. Same country, very different vantages. In Druckerman’s France, the early childhood education system works fairly well, not having to have a car is pleasant, food isn’t a battle, and pleasant eroticism seems to fuel most adults’s lives—including parents’s. “Pleasant” is used twice deliberately. In Houellebecq’s France, empty nihilism reigns, most people are isolated by their attachment to machines, and and most actions are or feel futile.

So who’s right? Maybe both writers. But Druckerman may also point to some reasons why France, despite pursuing many bad economic policies at the country level, is still impressively functional and in many ways a good place to live. The country’s education system is functioning well and so is its transit systems—for example, Paris’s Metro is being massively expanded, at a time when the U.S. is choking on traffic and struggling with absurdly high subway costs that prevent us from building out alternatives. New York’s last main trunk subway line was completed before World War II. Small and useful extensions have been completed since, but there is no substitute for opening a dozen or more new stations and 10+ miles at a time. Improved subway access reduces the need for high-cost cars and enables people to live better lives—something France is doing but the U.S. seems unable to achieve. AAA estimates the average total cost of an American car to be $9,282. If French people can cut that to say $3,000 (taxes included) for subways, the French may be able to do a lot more with less.

France’s bad macro policies and overly rigid labor market may be offset by good childcare and transit policies; Bébé could help explain why that is. Druckerman says, “Catering to picky kids is a lot of work” (“cater” appears four times in Bébé). If the French don’t do that, Americans may be spending a lot of hours at work, rather than leisure, that the French aren’t spending—therefore raising the total quality of French life. Mismeasurement is everywhere, and, while I don’t want to praise France too much on the basis of a single work, I can see aspects of French culture that make sense and aspects of American culture that, framed correctly, don’t.

Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero — Tyler Cowen

The question underlying Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero is, “How can problems best be identified and solved?” (Although the book is much more interesting than my question may imply.) Sometimes individuals acting alone are the best agents; sometimes groups of individuals who agree to be lassoed together under a corporate aegis are the best agents (that is a long way of saying “business”); sometimes government(s) are the best agents, depending on the type, scale, and fixability of the problem(s). Many political arguments are essentially arguments that want to move problem domains or solutions from one of these classes to another.

Pages 22 – 23 deal with industries that exist despite selling products that, at the very least, likely don’t do what proponents say they will do—industries like dentistry, stockbrokers, sales reps, and food. The food industry is particularly notable, as a lot of food is what Michael Pollan calls “edible foodlike substances.” Another way of looking at those products, though, is that they’re selling hope or reassurance, and people like buying hope much more than they like buying evidence-backed products. Consumer Reports is not all that popular and their evaluations rarely if ever go viral. Perhaps most importantly, a lesson from industries Cowen cites, like dietary supplements, is that most people have bad epistemic hygiene—and, in most circumstances, don’t care about it. I spent much time attempting to teach undergraduates research strategies and how to evaluate claims and sources, and most of the time I wasn’t very successful. It took too long for me to realize that, rather than start with peer review, publication reliability, and that kind of thing, I need to start with a question: “How do you know what you know?” From there, it’s possible to build out towards epistemic hygiene, but the overwhelming majority of students seemed not to give a shit, and, indeed, if you go around asking normal people questions like, “How do you know what you know?” they will at best look at you strangely and at worst leave to talk to someone else about fun topics—at least, I speculate that that may happen.

Human rationality is often not that strong, and we like to give ourselves reasons for our failures while castigating others for theirs. People working in businesses are often engaging in similar activities and ways of arguing.

“How do you know what you know?” is a context question, and Cowen is a great expert in context. He asks us to “step back and consider what standard we are measuring business against. The propensity of business to commit fraud is essentially just an extension of the propensity of people to commit fraud.” The problem is mostly within us, rather than in the specific structures of business.

The chapter “Is Work Fun?” resonates:

I am not trying to whitewash the burdens of the workday and the workplace. Nonetheless, a lot of the other evidence points us toward the more positive side of work. Work provides us with a lot of what we value in life, including affirmation of our social worth, a structure for problem solving combined with rewards, and an important source of social interactions [. . .]

Yet we can rarely say as much in public or among our friends. Why not?

This paragraph is also characteristic of Cowen’s thought, where words like “but” and “nonetheless” play key roles. He’s really trying to get us to rejigger our levels. The “burdens” are real, but so are the benefits, even if those aren’t emphasized. Cowen is great at connecting ideas that are underemphasized and not often foregrounded. Chapter 9 asks us, “If Business Is So Good, Why Is It So Disliked?” Many possible answers are advanced. I will add one that I didn’t see or that I missed: it is easier to blame abstract “business” than ourselves.

I want to quote the book’s last sentence and paragraph but would prefer you to experience it after reading all of Big Business.

One chapter discusses tech companies; many of the criticisms against tech companies are misguided, as you’ve read here. More vitally, I see those criticisms as really being criticisms of individual people. If we, collectively, wanted to, we could all switch to DuckDuckGo for search—a boon for privacy—and many of us could be using Linux as a primary desktop operating system, especially today, when so much software is delivered via the browser. Dell offers high-quality Linux laptops, and using Linux is probably an improvement for privacy; homing beacons and tracking seem much less prevalent in open-source software. Yet most of us—including me when it comes to Linux—don’t choose the privacy-focused option. We don’t choose free software. We choose convenience. Is that the fault of tech companies or individual choices? To me, it looks a lot like we see the faults of tech companies when we look in the mirror in the morning. The number of people who really care about freedom, broadly defined, seems to be small, and far smaller than the number of people who say they care about freedom. Most people want convenience more than freedom or privacy, just as most people want junk food more than they want physical health. To return to my photography examples, most people want greater sharing convenience than the best image quality or artistic effect.

It’s possible to imagine an even more pro-business book than this one; a company like Amazon is amazing, for example, in that what I order, almost always shows up, and it’s convenient too. Contrast that with the many dealings I’ve had lately with New York’s tax office; I could go into detail, but the reader would likely want to stab their eyes out, as I have often wanted to do.

Cowen touches on alternatives to for-corporations:

Another possible way to test the honesty of business would be to compare nonprofit and for-profit organizations. If you think profits induce corruption, you might then conclude that nonprofits should be especially trustworthy. The evidence, however, will show that for-profits and nonprofits, at least if we are comparing enterprises in the same basic economic sector, usually operate in pretty similar ways.

This has been my experience; it’s also apparent to me, having worked for nonprofits for years, that nonprofits are much more like businesses than most people realize. I’ve also spent a lot of time working in and around universities, and they are the ultimate businesses: just try taking classes for grades if you can’t pay tuition. Try returning a low-value, high-cost degree. For a while I’ve been advancing the argument that many parts of the university system are self-interested (and sometimes just bad) actors that have great marketing skills. Most people react to that argument skeptically, but as evidence of student loan burdens grows, the skeptical reaction seems to be declining.

I’m not against nonprofits and the best ones are very important. The science research function at most universities still works fairly well, despite having some well-known incentive problems. The gap between university-in-theory and university-in-practice, though, remains wide, and most universities don’t want to publicize some obvious truths—like the idea that not everyone should go, or that not everyone has the conscientious and IQ necessary to thrive in an academic setting.

Among nonprofits, one possible purpose of the grant system is to keep nonprofits both honest and effective. It is possible to be honest without being particularly effective, and vice-versa. Ideally one wants both. Few of us do both perfectly, despite the way we often demand that others do both perfectly.

One chapter asks whether CEOs are paid too much: Cowen mostly says no, they’re not, and he cites a lot of empirical evidence on the subject. But he also says, “it’s hard to find someone who can both run the day-to-day operations of a company and do these other things [like social media and PR, communication, Congressional and other testimony].” I wonder if it’s really hard to find people who can do those things, or if there’s a kind of weird selection and vetting process going on through which only a small number of people are considered by the relevant people, and thus the number seems smaller than it is because those doing the selecting won’t broaden their search criteria. Think of it as the CEO equivalent of companies that only want to hire from certain schools that reject as many qualified applicants as they admit. I also wonder what level of compensation, if any, is necessary for satiation: many CEOs seem to reach, and to have reached, that level long before. Can we shift from money to some other yardstick? If so, how?

Is the business world changing faster than it used to? If so, is agility more important than it used to be? Many businesses may not be “set it and forget it” anymore (if they ever were). My personal favorite example is camera companies: standalone camera shipments have been dropping for the last six years, and the response of photo company CEOs has mostly been to shrug. No companies have made substantial efforts towards making their camera bodies into smartphones combined with superior image sensors. As a result, Apple and Google have come to dominate the imaging and video worlds, while camera makers seem to lack the agility necessary to compete. In many consumer industries, competition seems to be increasing; to cite another example I’m familiar with, large bike companies like Trek are facing a host of Internet startups like State, Priority, and numerous others that source direct from China and Taiwan. Innovators in electric bikes have not been the biggest companies. Low agility may result in eroding market share and profits. The future is happening and it doesn’t seem to be happening evenly, to everyone.

The modesty of many Big Business claims stand out: “[CEO pay in the aggregate] could be better, but it works much more effectively than many people think.” “Much more effectively than many people think” could still be not all that effective; in this and in many other sections, Cowen is trying to move the needle a bit. He’s describing situations with a large number of potential analogue, intermediary places, and in this he’s moving against the modern Twitter tendency to see things as binary: good or bad, zero or one, shit or brilliant. Most of things in the most of the world are in this intermediary space, including all humans, however virtuous all Twitters may portray themselves to be (in contrast to their vile enemies).

Big Business is much more story-based than one might expect from Cowen, who argues that we should be more suspicious of simple stories. Fortunately, Big Business is not a simple book.

As with all the Cowen books I’ve read, there’s much to think about and much more I could write here; he is very good at finding the space where “rarely argued/articulated” and “possibly correct” intersect. Common arguments and ideas are common, and incorrect or ridiculous ideas are common, but finding the Cowen quadrant is too rare. I sometimes worry that my own ideas are too common to be worth repeating. Finding ones that hit the Cowen quadrant is satisfying, like a deadlift PR.

The world is filled with problems and our goal as humans is to solve them until we die. We very rarely see life formulated in that way, but maybe we should say this explicitly more often. “What problems have you solved recently?” may be a more valuable question than, “What do you believe?”

The Coddling of the American Mind — Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff

Apart from its intellectual content and institutional structure descriptions, The Coddling of the American Mind makes being a contemporary college student in some schools sound like a terrible experience:

Life in a call-out culture requires constant vigilance, fear, and self-censorship. Many in the audience may feel sympathy for the person being shamed but are afraid to speak up, yielding the false impression that the audience is unanimous in its condemnation.

Who would want to live this way? It sounds exhausting and tedious. If we’ve built exhausting and tedious ways to live into the college experience, perhaps we ought to stop doing that. I also find it strange that, in virtually every generation, free speech and free thought have to be re-litigated. The rationale behind opposing free speech and thought changes, but the opposition remains.

Coddling is congruent with this conversation between Claire Lehmann and Tyler Cowen, where Lehmann describes Australian universities:

COWEN: With respect to political correctness, how is it that Australian universities are different?

LEHMANN: I think the fact that they’re public makes a big difference because students are not paying vast sums to go to university in the first place, so students have less power.

If you’re a student, and you make a complaint against a professor in an Australian university, the university’s just going to shrug its shoulders, and you’ll be sort of walked out of the room. Students have much less power to make complaints and have their grievances heard. That’s one factor.

Another factor is, we don’t have this hothouse environment where students go and live on campus and have their social life collapsed into their university life.

Most students in Australia live at home with their parents or move into a share house and then travel to university, but they don’t live on campus. So there isn’t this compression where your entire life is the campus environment. That’s another factor.

Overall, I suspect the American university environment as a total institution where students live, study, and play might be a better one in some essential ways: it may foster more entrepreneurship, due to students being physically proximate to one another. American universities have a much greater history of alumni involvement (and donations), donations likely being tied into the sense of affinity with the university generated by living on campus.

But Haidt and Lukianoff are pointing to some of the potential costs: when everything happens on campus, no one gets a break from “call-out culture” or accusations of being “offensive.” I think I would laugh at this sort of thing if I were an undergrad today, or choose bigger schools (the authors use an example from Smith College) that are more normal and less homogenous and neurotic. Bigger schools have more diverse student bodies and fewer students with the time and energy to relentlessly surveil one another. The authors describe how “Reports from around the country are remarkably similar; students at many colleges today are walking on eggshells, afraid of saying the wrong thing, liking the wrong post, or coming to the defense of someone who they know to be innocent, out of fear they themselves will be called out by a mob on social media.”

Professors, especially in humanities departments, seem to be helping to create this atmosphere by embracing “micro aggressions,” “intersectionality,” and similar doctrines of fragility. Perhaps professors ought to stop doing that, too. I wonder too if or when students will stop wanting to attend schools like Smith, where the “Us vs them” worldview prevails.

School itself may be becoming more boring: “Many professors say they now teach and speak more cautiously, because one slip or simple misunderstanding could lead to vilification and even threats from any number of sources.” And, in an age of ubiquitous cameras, it’s easy to take something out of context. Matthew Reed, who has long maintained a blog called “Dean Dad,” has written about how he would adopt certain political perspectives in class (Marxist, fascist, authoritarian, libertarian, etc.) in an attempt to get students to understand what some of those ideologies entail and what their advocates might say. So he’d say things he doesn’t believe in order to get students to think. But that strategy is prone to the camera-and-splice practice. It’s a tension I feel, too: in class I often raise ideas or reading to encourage thinking or offer pushback against apparent groupthink. Universities are supposed to exist to help students (and people more generally) think independently; while courtesy is important, at what point does “caution” become tedium, or censorship?

Schools encourage fragility in other ways:

“Always trust your feelings,” said Misoponos, and that dictum hay sound wise and familiar. You’ve heard versions of it from a variety of sappy novels and pop psychology gurus. But the second Great Untruth—the Untruth of Emotional Reasoning—is a direct contradiction of much ancient wisdom. [. . .] Sages in many societies have converged on the insight that feelings are always compelling, but not always reliable.

More important than ancient sages, modern psychologists and behavioral economists have found and argued the same. Feelings of fear, uncertainty, and doubt are strangely encouraged: “Administrators often acted in ways that gave the impression that students were in constant danger and in need of protection from a variety of risks and discomforts.” How odd: 18- and 19-year-olds in the military face risks and discomforts like, you know, being shot. Maybe the issue is that our society has too little risk, or risk that is invisible (this is your occasional reminder that about 30,000 people die in car crashes every year, and hundreds of thousands more are mangled, yet we do little to alleviate the car-centric world).

Umberto Eco says, “Art is an escape from personal emotion, as both Joyce and Eliot had taught me.” Yet we often treat personal emotion as the final arbiter and decider of things. “Personal emotion” is very close the word “feelings.” We should be wary of trusting those feelings; art enables to escape from our own feelings into someone else’s conception of the world, if we allow it to. The study of art in many universities seemingly discourages this. Perhaps we ought to read more Eco.

I wonder if Coddling is going to end up being one of those important books no one reads.

It is also interesting to read Coddling in close proximity to Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. Perhaps we need less iPhone and more magic mushrooms. I’d actually like to hear a conversation among Pollan, Haidt, and Lukianoff. The other day I was telling a friend about How to Change Your Mind, and he said that not only had he tried psychedelics in high school, but his experience cured or alleviated his stutter and helped him find his way in the world. The plural of anecdote is not data, but it’s hard to imagine safety culture approving of psychedelic experiences (despite their safety, which Pollan describes in detail).

In The Lord of the Rings when Aragorn and his companions believe that Gandalf has perished in Moria; Gimli says that “Gandalf chose to come himself, and he was the first to be lost… his foresight failed him.” Aragorn replies, “The counsel of Gandalf was not founded on foreknowledge of safety, for himself or for others.” And neither is life: it is not founded on foreknowledge of safety. Adventure is necessary to become a whole person. Yet childhood and even universities are today increasingly obsessed with safety, to the detriment of the development of children and students. In my experience, military veterans returning to college are among the most intersting and diligent students. We seem to have forgotten Gandalf’s lessons. One advantage in reading old books may be some of the forgotten cultural assumptions beneath them; in The Lord of the Rings risk is necessary for reward, and the quality of a life is not dependent on the elimination of challenge.

Here’s a good critical review.

iGen — Jean M. Twenge: The kids aren’t all right?

It’s somewhat hard for me to love iGen because it fits the overall genre of “the kids are going to hell,” even if the author is savvy to that very problem and disavows it in the intro. I’m also now just old enough to no longer be part of the kids but not so old that I’ve forgotten all those “Oh my god the teens!” stories that described me as a teenager and college student.

In grad school, one of my professors had a book that assembled early reactions to the novel, which from the late 18th Century until close to the 20th Century was seen as depraved, a waste of time, a waste of talent, and morally corrupting. In other words, an activity that we now perceive as pretty high status was then seen as very low status, which often caused young men to be lazy and dissolute and young women to be morally impure. Corruption was clear and it came from words.

Oddly, in some ways those early criticisms were right, just too early: as a society we have largely secularized, and, although I wouldn’t lay all or even most of the reason why on the novel as a genre, it likely played a role by more freely disseminating information and letting people think for themselves, rather than having the clergy do all the thinking and information dissemination from the pulpit. When you let people think and read for themselves, many of them become less enamored of tedious religious works and the fellows who interpret those religious works to mean that giving to the church is good and sex is bad—very, very bad.

Today the smartphone is the great bugaboo of the age and we’ve not figured out how it ought to be integrated into society. Among my own peer group it’s now somewhat common to have phone-free parties, the better to be in the moment and avoid incriminating next-morning evidence, but it’s still common to lay a phone face-up on a table over coffee or drinks. But smartphone cultural practices haven’t really firmed up and smartphones have apparently taken over the lives of the Youth. The skeptical word “apparently” probably isn’t needed in the preceding sentence, because Twenge has lots of data demonstrating it.

One of the many admirable things about the book is how data-driven it is. Data, plus mostly avoiding the “The kids are going to hell” stuff, makes the book wildly readable and interesting. Still, not everyone is convinced; here’s one writer’s context and here’s another’s, arguing that smartphones aren’t actually destroying a generation.

The strange thing to me about constant smartphone life is that it seems so boring. Maybe from the inside it’s better. It’s all communication and little if any content underneath that communication. So much chatter and so little to say. Boredom as a theme runs through the book:

More and more teens are leaving high school never having had a paying job, driven a car by themselves, gone out on a date, had sex, or tried alcohol.

Sounds like a boring life. But it may also be a cheap one. Smartphone use may have deleterious effects but it’s also pretty cheap; once you have the phone and the data, marginal use is nearly free. So cost-effectiveness may drive smartphone obsession too, although Twenge doesn’t say it explicitly. Still, at some point I think even teenagers should get exhausted with relentless texting about nothing and want to go do things in the real world. Everyone feels left out but no one does anything about it.

Still, leading a boring life is not unique to this generation, although it’s wasting time online instead of wasting it on TV. For many decades, the average American watched four to five hours of TV a night—a terrible waste, it seems to me, especially given how much space was dedicated to commercials, but that’s what people did and what many people continue to do. If you have a choice of wasting time via TV or smartphone, smartphone seems like a marginal win.

Most likely, I think, teenagers are wasting most of their time, like most teenagers of most developed countries of most of the last hundred or so years, and will probably quit it when they have to pay their own rent.

Yet knowledge of smartphone problems seems also to widespread:

iGen’ers are addicted to their phones, and they know it. Many also know it’s not entirely a good thing. It’s clear that most teens (and adults) would be better off if they spent less time with screens. “Social media is destroying our lives,” one teen told Nancy Jo Sales in her book American Girls. “So why don’t you go off it?” Sales asked. “Because then we would have no life,” the girl said.

That seems unlikely, but logic is tough and most people’s revealed preferences show phone love. Apparently the data show that iGen is “at the forefront of the worst mental health crisis in decades, with rates of teen depression and suicide skyrocketing since 2011.” I wonder if something has really changed, or if something has changed regarding the self-reporting that people do. Perhaps it’s now more socially acceptable to report depression, in surveys or to doctors and others.

We get similar data later in the book: “Nevertheless, the case highlights a nationwide problem: the often inadequate resources for mental health assistance on campus.” If mental health assistance is inadequate today, when was it adequate? Why? What’s changed? And are we looking historically and cross culturally? In 1942 – 45, American men of college age were mostly fighting the Nazis and Japanese and probably also had inadequate mental health resources. Today, Kurdish teenagers fight ISIS. Because someone has a worse problem than you do doesn’t invalidate the problem, but there’s a startling lack of context to assertions like these; if the problem is the phone, turn off the phone.

This generation is supposed to be more inclusive by some measures, which I can believe, but I doubt it’s more inclusive overall; instead I suspect it’s going to be as exclusive as any generation, just based on different criteria. What those criteria are I can’t say, but I’m sure they’ll be there.

I’ve chatted a lot with a friend who grew up in the center of Gen X, and he remembers a generation that, according to the media, was filled with druggie dropouts who totally lack ambition. Those same people are now in the middle of their lives and seem to be fine, with reasonably normal distributions, and most of them seem to do what most people end up doing: getting a job and having kids. The dropouts of the late 80s and early 90s are the dads and moms of today.

One interesting thing for readers of this blog: it seems that iGen teens are “less likely to read than teens of previous eras:”

In the late 1970s, the clear majority of teens read a book or magazine nearly every day, but by 2015, only 16% did. In other words, three times as many Boomers as iGen’ers read a book or magazine every day.

You can quibble with that particular metric but Twenge presents others. Moreover:

Perhaps this move away from print is innocuous, especially if teens are still keeping up their academic skills. But they are not: SAT scores have slid since the mid-2000s, especially in writing (a 13-point decline since 2006) and critical reading (a 13-point decline since 2005).

This is echoed by 2007 article “Twilight of the Books.” One fast trick I use in assessing student writing skills is simple: I ask students to write their favorite book on an index card and why that book is a favorite. Answers tend to correlate to reading and writing skills.

Still, when I was in high school I liked to read and was mostly looked at as a weirdo for enjoying reading. In college I read Richard Russo’s novel Straight Man during a summer when I was a lifeguard, and the other lifeguards thought it weird that I’d laugh because of a book. So while the data may point to a decline in reading, I’m not sure that the overall social situation has changed too much.

Mostly, I wonder what will happen to iGen’ers as they age. The empty-headed seem to have a harder and harder time the older they get and the more the structures that define high school and college fall away. But that too may have been true for a long time: people who try new things and continually learn and grow tend to have better lives than those who don’t.

Recommendations like this: “I believe textbooks also need to stop covering so many topics in so much detail” seem unlikely to help people develop personalities or reading skills. That is a real quote, by the way: it’s on page 308. Twenge qualifies it in the rest of the paragraph, but the real world remains complex and trying to simplify it for the militantly ignorant will not help them or human understanding of the world. Ignorance is a condition we ought to aspire to cure, not perpetuate.

Still, I have seen arguments like this one since forever:

When I’ve polled my students about how they’d prefer to spend class time, most have said they are fine with lectures as long as they convey information that is helpful to doing well on exams. They like discussion but don’t want it to take too much time away from learning the material they’ll be tested on.

Lectures have always been terrible ways of conveying information; they were just technologically expedient for much of human history, and jettisoning them will lose little. Still, when students are very much focused on exam or paper grades, I often like to ask: What’s the point of doing well on the paper? Usually the answer is “to do well in class,” and so on, but if one extends far enough outward the more interesting answers start to pop up.

Bottom line is that the book is interesting but ought to be read skeptically. Overall I’m happy to have read it and read the whole thing carefully, which isn’t so common. It’s fun to imagine how this book will appear 50 years from now, when someone being born today might write about it. I imagine a historian or social critic who analyzes it as a document of its times, when those times and the processes immediately roiling the present have passed. Most of the books about the horrors of the generations that came of age in the 60s or 70s now look at least a little hysterical. From the vantage of 50 years later, I suspect this generation will look like it turned out okay too.

Rapture — Susan Minot

I like Rapture but it’s not for everybody: it’s too focused on relationships, too explicit (though I would prefer the word “realistic,” many would disagree), too much about artistic educated urban people who want some things that are incommensurate with other things, too didn’t-Anna-Karenina-already-do-this?. It dissects the moment into a million little pieces, like Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach; we experience a succession of moments in a rush, and in writing we can slow them, reexamine them, reexperience them, or experience them from a new vantage.

Still, to my mind it’s about three people who aren’t ready or able to leap towards the obvious relationship-structure conclusion, even if the wrapping around that core idea is Kay’s afternoon with Benjamin. The narrative perspective shifting from Kay to Benjamin and back. Their thoughts are not so dissimilar but retain dissimilar enough to retain interest. They think in similar ways, as perhaps people in similar milieus and with similar “wrong” desires might. Neither Benjamin nor Kay knows each other, like we all don’t really know anyone, and we get that from the first page:

He had no idea what had gotten her there.
He certainly wasn’t going to ask her about it. There was no way he was going wade into those dangerous waters and try to find out why she’d changed her mind…

Probably wise on his part. We also get a similar idea later on, midway through: “What did other people know about what really went on inside a person?” Some things are unknowable, and fiction likes to remind us of this.

A few pages into the novel, we switch to Kay’s perspective for the first time:

It was overwhelming, the feeling that this was pretty much the only thing that mattered, this being with him, this sweetness, this . . . communing . . . this . . . there was no good word for it.

(Ellipses in original.)

It raises questions: how much does “pretty much” elide here? And if this is “pretty much the only thing that mattered,” why do we spend so much time and energy doing other things, like building civilization? This is an analytic novel, so Kay doesn’t answer, but we might consider it as we read. I also don’t know what to do with later, similar thoughts, like “This was real, this was the most real thing.” Getting down to what is really real is tricky, and answers tend to vary based on the moment a person happens to be in. Are things that matter real? Are real things things that matter? I don’t know either.

Sometimes the vision is blank:

He shut his eyes. He saw the empty landscape. He knew he had to get out of bed and get going and soon, but he was mesmerized by this vision of emptiness. It was telling him something.

Maybe I like the novel because I’m working on one that uses somewhat similar narrative perspective on material that isn’t so different. We all fantasize about knowing what someone else is thinking, but only in fiction do we actually get to switch perspective to see. That fantasy is as potent as flying, and while we can fly via planes or rockets or other external apparatus, we never get to fly the way we do in our dreams.

Free Women, Free Men: Sex – Gender – Feminism — Camille Paglia

New Paglia is always worth reading, and Free Women, Free Men is not an exception. That being said, if you’ve read her other books you’ve already read this one. If you’re tired about hearing about Doris Day and “my 1960s generation” or “my baby boom generation” (as I am), you’ll be tired at many points in this book. I wrote that line before I saw Dwight Garner’s NYT review, in which he says, “The problem, for the reader of ‘Free Women, Free Men,’ is that she repeats the same arguments and anecdotes over and over again. Reading this book is like being stranded in a bar where the jukebox has only two songs, both by Pat Benatar.”

Yes. And many of the pieces date poorly. Does anyone care about Madonna’s BDSM-inflected music video from the ’90s? It may have been a vital moment in pop culture, but almost all pop culture is ephemeral, as pop culture itself likes to imply, or remind us. Or how about Anita Hill? That was a name I needed to back-check: my first inclination was, “Anita who?”

That being said, there is much to like in Free Women, Free Men, starting from the first page:

The premier principles of this book are free thought and free speech—open, mobile, and unconstrained by either liberal or conservative ideology. The liberal versus conservative dichotomy, dating from the split between left and right following the French Revolution, is hopelessly outmoded for our far more complex era of expensive technology and global politics.

It is always useful to call for free thought and speech, especially when both seem weirdly under fire, from left and right (later in the introduction, Paglia writes, “The title of this book exalts freedom as an indispensable condition for the incubation and flourishing of individualism”). Despite how tedious reading yet more about Doris Day and Madonna may be, sometimes we look to past predictions to see how they might be right. This Paglia line, originally from 1997, is particularly prescient: “Too much tolerance too fast can produce a puritanical or fascist backlash” (142). Had I read that in August I would’ve laughed. Now I realize that I was wrong and that is fascist backlash is possible. We don’t really learn from history—not collectively, anyhow—and facts don’t change our minds. In some ways the state of knowledge is better than ever before; we can learn almost anything, immediately, but in other ways the state of knowledge is worse: incorrect memes proliferate, and they enable the fascist backlash, though that backlash may be enabled by people who know not what they do.

That line about tolerance and backlash occurs nearly midway through the book and it’s easy to miss. But it’s also emblematic of the way Paglia spouts ideas like water from a Greek fountain. They are ceaseless, and take the eye away for a moment and new ideas take the place of the ones just experienced. In this way she is, or is close to being, an artist.

She also calls for real equality rather than special privileges or hand-holding; she says, for example,

What was distinctive in those emancipated women—and here loom my later problems with second-wave feminism—was that they never indulged in reflex male-bashing: they accepted and admired the enormity of what men had accomplished and were simply demanding a fair chance to prove that women could match or surpass it. Their inspirational record of unapologetic ambition and plucky, resourceful self-reliance was the foundation for my later philosophy of equal opportunity feminism.

That being said, she can also be fond of nitwitisms like, “The sexes are at war.” Nonsense. It’s nonsense now and has been nonsense as often as it’s been said. In that domain we live in a positive-sum world, not a zero-sum world, and in many ways Paglia gets that. Yet she won’t quite admit it.

While I admire parts of Free Women, Free Men, I wish for another book like Sexual Personae. In her conversation with Tyler Cowen, however, Paglia said that what she considered to be Volume II of Sexual Personae she actually published as individual “articles.” A shame. Nothing she’s published since that, however interesting it may be at times, matches it. I will reiterate that new Paglia is worth reading, but be ready to skip the sections that you have in effect already read.

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